by Martina Clark
I was becoming that woman. The one in the corner of the restaurant, reading a book — probably by Nora Ephron — sipping wine and looking forward to going home to her cats. The grandmother of a toddler, divorced once, with more failed romances than the entire cast of Beverly Hills 90210; I was jaded and fed up and, on top of it all, HIV-positive.
In the 20-plus years since being diagnosed, my romantic life had rarely been a success. Disclosing my health status to a new love interest topped my list of things I hate to do. I'd rather go for a root canal; at least the dentist offers painkillers when he hurts you.
Straight men are the least educated about HIV, in my experience. They haven't been targeted, so they just don't know. The worst was a guy who hit me when I told him my status, but most were simply not prepared to deal with it, so they'd leave. Or be weird. Or be weird, and then leave.
When "W" was still president, a guy I'd been seeing off and on for nearly three years told me, "You know, I am totally cool with you having HIV. It's just that I don't want anyone to know I'm seeing you. I'm not ready for that." He was the last man I dated.
I resigned myself to single life and got my Eat, Pray, Love going. I don't like bugs, so I skipped India, but I learned to love myself in all sorts of ways and followed my bliss: I started a reggae band — a Lovers Rock — to be specific. Some say Lovers Rock is the R&B of reggae. I usually describe it as "Motown goes to the beach."
I'd been singing backup for a local reggae artist when a mutual friend introduced me to Neal. He knew Neal and I shared a passion for Lovers Rock and that Neal, a seasoned musician, would be someone I could depend on to start my band. We clicked immediately. And, the result of generations of mixed marriages, he happens to be really hot. He could be the love child of Genghis Kahn and Billie Holliday, with just as much passion and talent.
Our first rehearsal was pure magic, smooth harmonies and a dream team of talent. As we played, Neal's face softened and his serenity showed through, like he was doing some kind of musical mediation. This was the music I wanted to make.
For a few weeks, Neal also played guitar for the singer I was already backing. But when the singer heard that several of us were starting a group of our own, he blew a gasket and made everyone choose sides. It was an actual battle of the bands. I laughed and walked away.
Neal and I discussed our predicament, and while considering our options, he looked me in the eyes, and, ever quiet, calm and focused, said,
"Martina. I choose you."
I choose you.
I knew he was talking about the music, but hearing these words fall from the soft lips of this gorgeous man, I was smitten. The moment we met, I wanted to sit in his lap. It wasn't even a sexual thing; it was about comfort, like I'd always known him.
But the others abandoned us, and Neal and I found ourselves with no musicians. If we wanted to keep playing together, we'd have to recruit new members. Again. Without fuss or hesitation, he stepped up.
Through this band-birthing process, Neal kept reassuring me, calling just to check in and see how I was doing. One day he texted me about an upcoming gig, and I replied,
"Sounds good. But I'm sad. Just found out that a friend died. She was so young and vibrant. Breaks my heart."
His response: "I can be your teddy bear."
How very much I'd like that, I thought. We'd already gone from greeting by handshake to hug, to a kiss on the cheek, to something resembling a kiss on the mouth, albeit a hesitant one. Then, one night, he gave me a tight squeeze goodbye after rehearsal, lingering in our embrace a bit longer than usual, and said,
"Sometimes, when I hold you, I don't want to let go."
He smiled and left me at the door and ran for his bus. I texted him,
"You don't have to let go..."
Two days later, I suggested we go for dinner. He was late to pick me up, and I was pacing. My friend Powell, who was visiting, gave me that look that said, "Oooooh dear, you've got it bad."
"Looks like a date to me!" Powell said. "You're in a skirt and you've got butterflies!"
"No. It's not a date. It's just dinner," I insisted, fingering the edge of my sweater.
"But you like him. You said so yourself. You call him your band husband, for crying out loud!"
"Yeah, but that's because we're like the mom and dad of the band. This is just dinner. Really."
I was lying, and we both knew it. Neal was the most interesting man I'd met in a very long time, possibly ever. He was ex-military, a Marine, but also immersed in Buddhism. And he plays jazz licks that can curl a girl's toes. This was the man I'd been waiting my whole life to meet.
I suspect that Neal was late because he sensed something was up and wondered what the hell he was getting himself into. He'd told me he was never one to approach women, so I took that as my cue to make the first move. Truth was, I thought about him all the time and just wanted to see what if.
We'd spoken a fair amount about unbalanced exes, relationship challenges, and the importance of having peace of mind, which sometimes meant it was just easier to be single. At dinner we continued this conversation.
Over jerked salmon and curried okra, he said,
"My mantra is 'No expectations. No drama. No agendas.'"
The minute one of those tenets tipped too far out of balance, he was done.
"Wise words," I replied, sipping my wine.
It seemed we were on the same page, but I knew that by approaching him, I risked losing both him and the band. Yet I believed he was worth the risk. I needed to know if he felt the same way.
Despite having spent three intense months of collaboration, it felt like it was the first time we'd ever been alone. Once the check was paid – his treat even though I'd done the inviting – we dashed a half block in the pouring rain to my house. I don't recall actually inviting him upstairs – I may have just put him on my shoulders, hauled him up and plopped him on my sofa – but next thing I knew, he was nervously asking,
"So, what exactly is this? Are we on a date?"
I admitted, "I really like you, Neal. I've been trying to fight it because I don't want to mess up the music, and I feel like this could be a conflict. But, I have feelings for you."
To that he smiled, then leaned over and kissed me. And not a little peck but a good proper kiss with my face in his hands.
"How do you feel now?" he asked.
My heart pounding, I replied, "I feel like maybe we can do both." That answer earned me another delicious kiss. After some serious smooching, I stopped him.
"I have to tell you something else."
"Okaaaay." He responded in a tone that I had come to recognize as one of curiosity.
"So, we all have our issues. I'm glad to say that mine aren't psychological. I mean, I think I'm pretty stable and have my life together."
"Uh-huh," he said quietly, as he watched me with eyes that belonged on the depiction of a Hindu god.
"Thing is, I'm HIV-positive. I'm healthy as a horse and take my meds and all that, but I do have HIV, and if this is going to go any further, you need to know that."
"You're not serious…?"
I said nothing, but my expression clearly told him I was. We were facing each other directly, and he stared at me as if searching for an answer written behind my eyes, on the back wall of my skull. He slowly rose to his feet and stood above me without saying a word.
"I understand if you need time to think about this," I said, convinced he'd reach for the door and bolt. "I mean, it's a big deal. I know it is, and I don't want you to feel uncomfortable."
"Okay," I echoed, and started to turn my face away from his gaze, but he pulled me up into his arms.
"No. I mean it's okay. I'm okay with it. I don't like it, but it's not a deal-breaker. It doesn't change who you are or how I see you."
"Are you sure? Don't you want to think about it for a while?"
He simply replied, "One thing I thank the military for is the training to make a decision on the spot; to know what is the right way to proceed and to stick to that course of action. It's okay. We're good."
Tears welled up in my eyes as he held me. We stood in silence for a moment, and then made out like teenagers until we'd hit each base and basked in the glow of our home run. He stayed that night and the next and basically every night since.
Often when I look at Neal – whether we're about to go on stage as he's tuning his guitar or about to eat a meal as he's adding pepper to the sauce – I smile, and in my head I hear the sweet voice of one of reggae's greatest crooners, Sugar Minott, singing,
We're both together in this love affair, you and me baby... This is Lovers Rock.